In the last quarter of year 2013, we were faced by massive calamities, equally massive price hikes and disappointing government response. It is these problems that we will carry forward to this new year and it would be these same things that would make 2014 a interesting challenge for all. I’ll tackle these three points in several columns.
Will we be facing more disasters this new year? There are two sides to this question: increased hazards and proper disaster response. Undoubtedly, the Philippines cannot avoid being hit by typhoons that are generated from the West Pacific nor can we avoid being in the Pacific Ring of Fire.
According to data compiled from the Joint Typhoon Warning Center’s best track database of the typhoon paths and strengths since 1945 to the present, we are situated historically within the zone where the strong typhoons usually pass by, as well as in the path where most typhoons take. This in itself should have already been enough to typhoons embedded in local and national government’s mindsets. We should be having typhoon drills (together with storm surge and flood drills) as we would have fire and earthquake drills in schools.
Will future typhoons be stronger and more frequent in the future due to climate change? The answer is not so straightforward, as even the International Panel on Climate Change’s latest fifth assessment report has been careful to note that “tropical cyclone . . . indices . . . show upward trends in the North Atlantic and weaker upward trends in the western North Pacific since the late 1970s, but interpretation of longer-term trends is again constrained by data quality concerns.”
A study in 2012 by the UN Escap/World Meteorological Organization in 2012 on the influence of climate change on tropical cyclones is equally careful, although they noted that climate change can make tropical cyclones more intense, particularly in the Pacific. Rainfall rates in association with typhoons are also projected to increase with global warming. The study also warns of increased economic damage as well as increased threats from storm surges. The US NOAA summarizes the state of knowledge by stating that “the increase in intense storm numbers is projected despite a likely decrease (or little change) in the global numbers of all tropical storms.”
Comforting thought, except that recent papers of Kerry Emanuel published on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA have noted “the frequency of downscaled tropical cyclones increases during the 21st century in most locations. The intensity of such storms, as measured by their maximum wind speeds, also increases, in agreement with previous results.” He further notes that these increases are most prominent in the western North Pacific where we are located.
Are there similar studies for earthquakes? Unfortunately, earthquakes are a more difficult hazard to predict. Due to this fact, we can only go by with the geological studies of fault lines and earthquake generators in the country. The Philippines is usually beset by multiple earthquakes but only the more energetic ones cause widespread damage and disaster.
What should we do then? We cannot avoid these hazards. We cannot turn away a tropical storm nor move the country away from the Pacific Ring of Fire. Disasters from storms are undoubtedly the more common and causes more deaths and economic dislocation between the two. Yet it would always be on how we prepare for these hazards that could spell between life or death for many.
Disaster risk reduction training should be required at all levels of government. Disaster plans should be put in place and should be practiced. In 2011, I wrote a related column some points which I’ll summarize below.
We need to improve our disaster response plans. We should have constant typhoon drills (a la fire drills), pre-positioned relief goods, well-planned (and practiced) evacuation plans and community-based disaster risk assessments. There should also be clear and direct lines of responsibilities between the national and local disaster agencies. Ondoy, Pepeng, Pedring, Quiel, Pablo and Yolanda should have been enough reminders for the government to be worried every time a typhoon comes.
Proactive warning systems
We should have proactive warning systems taking advantage of technology and local communities in warning and mobilizing people to face the hazards. We should also have a nationwide emergency response system such as that in Cuba. National policies that worsen environmental hazards such as reclamation should be reviewed and reversed.
At the heart of it all, one of the most important determinants of our people’s vulnerability to disasters is poverty. With the government planning to increase public utility prices in the next year, jobs being more scarce than it was and social services being privatized left and right, the capacity of many communities to face disasters are being steadily eroded. One of the challenges in 2014 for all of us is to work towards stopping these price increases and other economic threats in order for us to face future disasters better this coming year.